Spinning Science

This post is the final nail in the coffin of everything you’ve spent your life working towards. I’m going to show you evidence that your work, the people around you and everything you think is true is all a hoax, even though I know very little about you or what you do. Pause for a moment, and consider what I could possibly be talking about.

Keep thinking.

OK, give up? Good! I was pulling your leg. John P Costella, on the other hand, is dead serious:

“As an increasing number of highly qualified scientists slowly began to realize that the “climate science” community was a facade—and that their vitriolic rebuffs of sensible arguments of mathematics, statistics, and indeed scientific common sense were not the product of scientific rigor at all, but merely self-protection at any cost—the veil began to drop on what has already become clear as the greatest scientific fraud in this history of mankind.

This is one of the darkest periods in the history of science. Those who love science, and all it stands for, will be pained by what they read below. However, the crisis is here, and cannot be avoided.”

A storm in a teacup?

Those are some pretty huge claims – are they supported by evidence? Well, John has presented a mountain of text, based on a cache of stolen emails. Most of the mountain is made of molehills. The scientists involved have been investigated and cleared of wrongdoing, and no scientific evidence has emerged to contradict the consensus position of climate science. One would imagine that, if the greatest scientific fraud in the history of mankind was being perpetrated by people who are reporting their data publicly, and further, the fraud had been exposed, someone could come up with a refutation. In fact, evidence for climate change continues to stack up, scientists keep doing science and we find out new things about the world. ‘Climategate’ has mostly gone quiet, but the damage has been done: there’s an extra handful of falsehoods to be hung out repeatedly in the media by contrarians, and there’s a vague aura of scandal and doubt lingering in the public sphere.

Further, the mud hasn’t just stuck to climate scientists. Unlike many trades, all types of scientists are often referred to as, well, scientists. Yet, the difference in expertise between a biologist and a physicist is easily as broad as the difference between a plumber and an electrician. Attacks on the reputation of some scientists can damage the public image of all scientific professions. Ironically, saying something is scientific can often give credibility to statements which are anything but, as I found in a recent chain letter that landed in my inbox:

Testing the water.

“In a number of carefully controlled trials, scientists have demonstrated that if we drink 1 litre of water each day, At the end of the year we would have absorbed more than 1 kilo of Escherichia coli, (E.. Coli)  bacteria found in feces.”

This statistic is wrong by roughly one thousand million million times (literally). The email wasn’t serious, but it’s interesting that ‘scientists’ are invoked to give credibility to a statement, even if it’s an absurd one which doesn’t stand up to a moment of scientific scrutiny.

If science is, generally, credible, why do people listen to anti-scientific claims? There’s a lot of possible reasons, many of which I’ve discussed before: the most obvious is that it agrees with what we already think. It may also match up with how we behave, so we avoid dissonance by thinking that what we do is OK. Some people know a small amount about a subject, just enough for them to misunderstand it all. Others are freaked out by reality and deny it, either explicitly or by ignoring or otherwise minimising its importance. Further, science is hard and can be counterintuitive, so what’s being said might appeal to ‘common sense’. In addition, claiming certainty for a position makes it attractive, and science rarely, if ever, comes without a level of doubt.

Spinning a message to support or achieve a certain goal can exploit, or downplay, any of these factors. Further, careful choice of words or context can totally distort the audience’s understanding of a message.

A recent run-in with a creationist reinforced my opinion that science suffers in sound bites. Anti-science campaigns have consistently outstripped science in creating simple, catchy, loaded phrases which rally supporters and spread easily in media. “Teach the Controversy” was pushed for Intelligent Design; “Climategate” took the media by storm and the classic creationist catchcry “My grandpa weren’t no ape!” rolls off the tongue full of righteous indignation.

Life's shiny when you spin it right.

These appeal to a range of non-scientific factors; fairness, historical events, emotion and ‘common sense’. Most people base their opinions on such factors – we don’t have the motivation, time, training or expertise to go and assess the relevant data to make an informed decision. There are some immensely talented science communicators out there, but they generally cover topics in a depth that doesn’t lend itself to quick, catchy reproduction by media or word of mouth. So, spin holds all the aces in the realm of science, bar one: being honest in the face of evidence. Is that important?

I wouldn’t be a scientist if I answered “no” to that question. I take pride in the fact that I am willing to change my mind about an issue if I discover compelling new information that contradicts my position. Strangely, the same approach seems to be suicidal in politics and isn’t broadly viewed as a virtue. Telling someone they’re wrong in a scientific context is generally in the spirit of healthy criticism; in general social interaction, it’s not so cut and dried, with people tying the accuracy of their position to their credibility and integrity (more on this at TheBenshi).

If scientific honesty isn’t foremost, people can say whatever they think other people will believe. They might even believe it themselves, as deeply as it can be believed. A recent study (performed using models, so, not real life, but informative never the less) found that:

“Public debates driven by incomplete scientific data where nobody can claim absolute certainty, due to current state of scientific knowledge, are studied. The cases of evolution theory, global warming and H1N1 pandemic influenza are investigated. The first two are of controversial impact while the third is more neutral and resolved. To adopt a cautious balanced attitude based on clear but inconclusive data appears to be a lose-out strategy. In contrast overstating arguments with wrong claims which cannot be scientifically refuted appear to be necessary but not sufficient to eventually win a public debate.”

This suggests people aren’t convinced by a talking head stating that “We’re about 75% sure a change in rainfall patterns in Melbourne is due to human CO2 emissions”, or at least, not as much as they are by another talking head saying “Nope, can’t happen, totally ridiculous idea, we’re fine, and driving an SUV is great fun.”

How can this be solved? Do scientists need to compromise their core ethos to benefit science communication and public engagement with good science? Again, I’ll say no. A key realisation of mine, of late, is that I think differently to most other people. Well, duh. I’ve always known that; actually accepting the fact and its implications is what I’m starting to get to grips with.

I’m not saying I’m special in any way – just different to the majority (like everyone else!). I place a lot of value on scientific information and rationality, evidence and logical argument. Many people put priority on other ways of finding out about things; authority, intuition, common sense, personal experience and such. I would argue myself blue that my approach is good for getting an accurate understanding of an issue, but I can only point to a few instances in my life where I’ve walked away from a debate having changed someone’s mind with that approach.

As I step onto my new career path, I optimistically envisage a future where the communication of science is driven by people who understand the nature and value of science, but also understand the broader picture than hard data and evidence. I find a lot of science innately interesting and relevant, which isn’t a view shared by most. I will need to learn how others see science and understand what they understand about it (understand me?). I’ll need to learn how to tell engaging stories and how to weave science into those stories. Most of all I’ll have to share my passion about science, the world we live in and the immense satisfaction which can be gained by knowledge and understanding.

Let’s start with critical thinking classes in schools. What’s the point of having a brain if you don’t know how to use it?

Note: This post has been in draft form since February, and has suffered numerous revisions, additions, deletions and now I’m putting it out there to get the monkey off my back. Since I wrote the first draft, NewScientist have run extensive articles on denialism, the role of PR in science, etc, and there has been some excellent commentary on blogs which say much of what I think, but better. I have been particularly enjoying thebenshi.com, by Randy Olson, and the essays and links he’s supplied.

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Categories: Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Spinning Science

  1. Absolutely a great write – and it would seem we’ve both been thinking a long the same lines.
    Admittedly, I walked into this blog environment somewhat naively. Outside of debating with creationists and scientologist in my early 20’s, I was more or less unaware of such denial.
    I chose to write my blog to show just how amazing the world is (and even more so with increasing scientific clarity) and how one can make common sense (learnt later the stigma to this) arguments regarding climate change after listening to Monckton’s presentation late last year.
    I’ve since reverted to a review paper technique and realised that regardless what I do, if a reader doesn’t like what I say, they will refute it. I think I’ve been lucky to have avoided so much close-mindedness until this point.
    I feel, as you excellently concluded here, that all that can be done is present the evidence as level headed and with as much scientific integrity as can be done and, seeing as it’s more personal, add a flare of passion so that those who are interested and opened-minded can get the most out of it!
    :)
    Tim

    • That’s right! The web makes it much easier for the extreme groups (on any side of an issue) to co-ordinate and confirm their own biases, as well as accessing and attacking those they don’t agree with. I don’t view my (future?) job as a science communicator to refute those kinds of people (though it can be useful as an exercise…), but more to share my point of view as well as I can with people occupying the middle ground.

      I’m not sure yet what niche I’ll be looking to occupy – your design work is pretty sweet though, well on the way to carving out a unique style!

      • On Climate shifts the other day Andrew Glikson spoke about denial and a while ago Mike at Watching the Deniers also said something similar – regarding these people. I tend to agree with them that we cannot debate with them as they don’t apply their arguments to the same scientific rigour (an example would be the lengths Prof Abraham had to go to when trying to dissect Monckton’s presentation).
        Don’t worry – I’m not sure on my niche as yet either. I’d like to be both a educational ranger that helps locals reattach to their local environments and a consultant working with farmers to improve their yield and biodiversity. Such work doesn’t exist and to take such a step independently would require a better portfolio than that I hold! lol
        design work? My graphics? cheers – I used to be a graphic / web designer over a decade ago.. :)

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